Knowledge Base

Family Mediation Can Help Eliminate Holiday Swooping 


October 1, 2011
Written by Halee Burg

Swooping, which most commonly refers to birds, is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as  “carry[ing] out a sudden attack.”   How does that relate to family issues, you wonder?  Especially to the battles with your siblings over your aging parents?

Do you have a sibling or other close family member who lives hours away and comes “home” only a few times a year? Not long after he walks into the family home, does he pepper you with questions, criticize how things are being handled with Mom and Dad, make pronouncements about how things should be done, or simply dismiss any concerns that you raise about Mom and Dad?  The meddling may represent only the tip of the iceberg, the warning sign of patterns that may be just around the corner - visit after visit, year after year.

The holiday season is fast approaching.  With it, friends, food, family, and all too often, friction.  While we anxiously anticipate joyous family gatherings around holiday tables full of animated conversation, all too often those imagined conversations are fraught with tension and discord.  How many times is your younger brother from California going to tell you that you need to stop badgering Dad about his medication?  John, who makes two trips to Boston a year and calls barely once a month, insists Dad is perfectly capable of taking his meds reliably and accurately.  Is your twin sister Janice from Lansing, with whom you agree about everything but your parents’ declining health, again going to launch into a tirade if you suggest having a conversation with Mom and Dad about downsizing?  Every Sunday, in your weekly call, Janice prevails upon you to “just leave Mom and Dad alone” and to stop “trying to control them.”

Sound familiar?  Birds may swoop from their nests, but family members swoop when they return to the nest.  In how many living rooms and around how many tables does “swooping” season strike?  At a time when you want nothing more than family peace and harmony, it may feel like your siblings and/or adult children, whom you may see only a couple of times a year, parade into the family home and presume to take control.  You see Mom and Dad every day.  You watch them struggle to manage the once bustling family home and the weed-filled yard. You bristle at the thought of how many times Mom has gone to the hairdresser on the wrong day and time, despite her decades–long appointment on Friday mornings. And it hasn’t escaped your attention how often Dad’s dozen pills lay on his nightstand from the night before, waiting to be taken.  For John and Janice, selling the family home is simply off the table, despite the fact that Mom and Dad have repeatedly mentioned it to you.  To John and Janice, Mom is simply “a little forgetful.”  Dad is simply not paying attention.

When loved ones “swoop” in with observations or solutions, presuming to know and understand all that has transpired or changed in their absence, family members extending regular care or support to loved ones and seeing the increasing challenges they face day-to-day, naturally become frustrated, angry, and resentful.  Family tension builds.  Anxiously anticipated visits, whether during the holidays or at other times, dissolve into disappointing weekends punctuated by difficult conversations.  “Swoopers” feel unheard and disrespected; those shouldering the routine, heavy lifting feel unappreciated, resentful, and unacknowledged.  Mom and Dad, not understanding why the kids are not getting along, feel sad and bewildered.

Versions of the “swooping” scenario play out in families every day.  Close family ties are threatened and important issues regarding the aging parents or spouses they love are ignored or not effectively addressed.  Mediation with one of our skilled and experienced mediators can help these families, your family.

How does mediation work?  Mediation is a facilitated process for addressing important conflicts.  It is not therapy. Mediation focuses on the future, not the past. In a safe, confidential, and private setting where every participant is valued, the neutral mediator guides your family in a discussion of the issues most important to them.  Everyone has an opportunity to be heard and to share his or her perspectives and ideas.  Options are developed, explored, and evaluated. Decisions are made through building family consensus.

Mediation works because it offers each family member a voice.  It can help your family address together such important questions as:

Consider the Blanchards.  Rose and Tom, each well into their seventies, were no longer able to maintain their large four bedroom Colonial North Shore home.  Their three children, Shane, Lisa, and Julie, disagreed vehemently about whether their parents should stay in the home, move to an assisted living, buy a condo, or move in with one of them.   Rose and Tom were so agitated and concerned about their children’s fighting during holiday meals, that they were afraid to express their own desires.  In the meantime, their once immaculate and pristine home became increasingly cluttered and necessary repairs went untouched.

Shane, the eldest child, who lived in Pittsburg, came home only at Christmas and over July 4th.  Shane insisted that his parents sell their house immediately and move to an assisted living.  Lisa, the middle sibling, lived twenty minutes from her parents with her husband and children; she saw her parents almost every day.  Lisa believed their best option was to buy a condo in the nearby over-55 community which would be completed in three months.  Julie, the youngest, who lived with her partner and three year old son in the Berkshires, was convinced there was no reason why Mom and Dad could not stay in their home if only Lisa would help out a bit more with the house.  Last year, both the much-anticipated Christmas dinner and the annual July 4th barbeque deteriorated into family fights about their parents’ home.  Each time, Shane and Julie “swept” into the house, they complained about the house being in disrepair, and, at times, each blamed Lisa for not keeping it up or ensuring that Mom and Dad were happy and safe.  Not once did Shane or Lisa ask Mom or Dad how they felt about staying in the house or moving.  It was as if their parents didn’t exist and their sister was responsible for their care.

In mediation, Mom and Dad admitted that they no longer felt capable of managing the home where they had raised their three children, but they knew how much the house meant to everyone, especially Julie. They did not, however, want to move to an assisted living facility, and they feared that by selling their home in a down market they would not be able to afford buying even a smaller home and securing outside help to maintain it.  Mom and Dad explained to Shane and Julie that while they appreciated Lisa’s daily help and support, they wanted Lisa to be able to focus on her family in the same way that Shane and Julie focused on theirs.  Shane and Julie expressed their need for Mom and Dad to be safe and unburdened from the physical, emotional, and financial strain of maintaining a large home.  Julie acknowledged that she also felt devastated at the prospect of losing the family homestead.  Lisa, for the first time, shared that she and her husband, Jim, had been saving to sell their home and find a bigger place, but also were very concerned about selling their home in a down market.

After exploring and discussing together in mediation various residential options available to Rose and Tom, as well as the types and level of support each adult child could offer, the Blanchard family agreed:

By focusing on shared interests, families like the Blanchards are able to move beyond entrenched positions, and identify and explore a variety of options that may meet their shared needs. Not only does mediation address issues of immediate concern, successful mediations commonly have benefits that extend well beyond the mediation’s conclusion.  Family communications are often improved, longstanding family dynamics may shift, and new approaches may emerge for addressing future conflicts.  Mediation can be a powerful, safe, and efficient proactive tool to support your family in successfully navigating the challenges of the elder years, when destructive family clashes so often occur.  Mediation offers the opportunity to plan for the future before a crisis occurs.

It is difficult enough having family members who live far away.  Dealing with the land mines unconsciously and unintentionally set off by swoopers can irreparably fracture even the strongest and most enduring relationships.  Mediation not only can help your family to solve problems productively, it can also help to repair damaged relationships, and offer a blueprint for effectively addressing emerging and ongoing issues in the years to come.

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